It is certainly right to place great emphasis on Christ’s birth (Christmas), death (Good Friday), and resurrection (Easter), but to ignore or minimize what comes after these important events (the Ascension) has impoverished the church. Ascension Day celebrates the day that Jesus ascended to heaven, 40 days after his resurrection (Acts 1:1-10). This year, Ascension Day falls on May 10th.
The absence of the Ascension in our thought and practice has left us ill-equipped for our work in the world. We have failed to realize the implications of the Lordship of Christ, our empowerment for ministry, and what Christ continues to do for us. All these things are wrapped up in the theology of the Ascension.
We should ask questions such as:
Could Jesus’ absence be better than his presence?
Was it better that he go away than stay?
What are the implications for our work?
The early disciples seemed to have grasped what we have missed. They were anticipating the future because of what Christ had done in the past. Jesus had taught them what to expect and they were beginning to see its realization.
If Christians today were to apply the truths of Christ’s ascension to their everyday work life, they would experience incredible freedom and power to pursue excellence in all sectors of society—the arts and sciences, business, politics, and in every workplace.
It all starts with understanding the importance of Christ’s absence.
In the account of the Ascension in Luke 24:49-53, Jesus first tells the disciples to stay in the city in order to wait for the “promise of My Father”—Pentecost (vs. 49). Then after blessing them, he ascended to heaven (vs. 50-51).
But notice the surprising, counterintuitive response of the disciples. It says, “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” It might make more sense if it said they returned with mourning and tears. Usually, when someone leaves on a long trip, there are tears. When soldiers go off to war, there are tears, and when they come back, there are hugs, kisses, and great joy.
When my sons went off to college for the first time, there were tears both for this new stage of life and because they would not be back home for a few months. There was a hole in our family, a missing piece, an absence of the music, harmonies, and adventures together. How much more would the disciples miss Jesus’ presence?
So why were the disciples so joyful? My answer is that they had begun to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in the upper room discourse in John 14-17. Particularly, note John 16:7-13. In verse 7-8, it says,
But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment.
Notice that stunning claim that “it is to your advantage that I go away.” How could that possibly be true? Could Jesus’ absence be better than his presence? Was it better that he go away than stay?
Just think of how great it was for the disciples (and would be for us, if we had been there) to see Christ’s miracles and hear his teaching from his own mouth. Imagine what it might have been like to be present at the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth,” and a man already dead four days came waddling out of the grave (John 11:43).
Or imagine the feeding of the five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread (Matt. 14:19), or his stilling the storm (Matt. 8:23-27), or walking on the water (Matt. 14:22). What I would give to see those events! Or imagine hearing the Sermon on the Mount from his lips, noticing his facial expressions, seeing his eyes, and hearing the tone of his voice.
Wouldn’t it be great to have lived in Jesus’ day or have him physically with us today? Why would we be better if he were to go away, rather than stay? Why is it better if he ascends to heaven rather than physically stay on earth?
In upcoming posts leading up to Ascension Day, I’ll answer these questions as we explore the implications of the Ascension on our lives today.
Editor’s note: Want to read more about Jesus’ ascension and our work? Check out Art’s full paper on the topic: “The Absence of the Ascension.”
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